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DTO's Should Transfer Data, Not Entities

I've read a couple of posts recently where the authors were complaining about excessive mapping to DTO's and whether or not it's worth it. I've been a fan of DTO's for a long time, but I'm not a fan of how I frequently see them being used. More specifically, I very much dislike the all-too-common approach of creating a DTO for each entity in your domain model. In the worst cases, the DTO's actually reference each other and try too hard to mimic the structure of the entities. For example, an OrderDto which has a reference to a CustomerDto and a collection of OrderLineDto instances. In those cases, I absolutely agree that all of the mapping involved introduces way too much ceremony to the codebase without really offering any concrete benefits.

Of course, it really depends on the architecture of your system. If you're using services that are only used by the front-end of your system, then I'd still advise against making those entities available outside of the service boundary for reasons that I've discussed earlier. That doesn't mean that you should go the entity-mimicking-DTO-route though. In fact, entity-mimicking-DTO's introduce a few of the same downsides you'd get from exposing entities directly through your services. For an 'internal' service (i.e. only used by your application), I think it makes a lot more sense to use DTO's per service operation which are optimized for the use case that that service operation is meant to implement.

Essentially, an internal service's operations will be either queries or commands. When it comes to queries, why not just do the simplest thing possible? In most cases, it's sufficient to just return the data in the exact same form that the data will be displayed in. Quite often, that means a denormalized set of data where the data comes from more than one type of entity/table. There's no reason to send a bunch of entity-mimicking DTO's that reference each other to the client if you're going to use the data to populate a grid. Just send a list of DTO's which are already in the most optimal form. Populating those DTO's can then simply be done through straight SQL, a view, a stored procedure, a projection through your ORM, a map/reduce operation, or whatever else that makes sense. The point is that in most cases, you should just populate those DTO's as directly as you can instead of mapping to those DTO's. In this case, the DTO's offer a clear-cut benefit and don't really introduce tedious ceremony code in your codebase.

As for the commands (inserts, updates, anything that creates something or results in something happening), why even use DTO's in the first place? People will often argue that the ability to reuse the entity-mimicking-DTO's for these operations is a benefit. Personally, I don't really see the benefit. The mere presence of entity-mimicking-DTO's only encourages people to use them for the queries as well. Instead, I prefer to go with types that encapsulate all of the data relevant to the current command (the data to be inserted/updated, or whatever else the command needs). In a very simple scenario, this could be an InsertCustomerCommand type which simply has properties for the data that needs to be inserted. Nobody will be confusing these types with any other purpose than what their name communicates.

If you're building a web app where the server-side code does everything in process (i.e. without a WCF service), then you can in many cases just use the entities directly without a real drawback, though I'd recommend keeping an eye on unexpected select N+1 problems, since those will frequently come up when you're preparing your views. But even in this case, using DTO's that are optimized for the scenarios in which they're being used can really simplify the query-side of your system a lot.

There's nothing inherently wrong with DTO's if you use them to simply transfer data. If you're using them to transfer entities, you're robbing yourself of their biggest benefit while only making things more complex than they need to be.

Written by Davy Brion, published on 2012-02-19 20:32:17
Categories: architecture , code-quality

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